TCS Daily

Yemen: A Glimmer of Hope?

By Jane Novak Gavaghen - September 8, 2006 12:00 AM

In the midst of a barrage of disheartening news from the Middle East, there's one bright spot that should hearten cynics, realists and idealists alike. On the Arabian Peninsula, below the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, next to the Sultanate of Oman, there's a hotly contested presidential election in the republic of Yemen.

Yemen is a kleptocracy where oil wealth vanishes into an un-audited account and corruption pervades nearly all government offices. The majority of Yemenis are suffering from a long neglected water crisis, lack of healthcare, widespread illiteracy, malnutrition, unemployment and poverty. In Yemen, the rich are getting richer, and the poor are sick, hungry and dying.

Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh has served as head of state for decades. Saleh became president of North Yemen in 1978. When North and South Yemen unified in 1990, multi-party politics were introduced as a power-sharing mechanism. Saleh retained the presidency. While Yemen's democratic spring was short lived, the memories have not faded.

A brief and unsuccessful secessionist war was launched by the South in 1994. Saleh's northern forces were victorious in part due to the deployment of Yemen's Afghan-Arabs against the southern Socialist forces. The ruling party calls the civil war "an apostate sedition." Saleh's General People's Congress party (G.P.C.) solidified its dominance over Yemen's still-born democratic institutions by utilizing both patronage and terror.

In the nation's first direct presidential election in 1999, Saleh was nominated by both the ruling G.P.C. and Yemen's main opposition party, Islah. He garnered 96% of the votes. His son Ahmed is considered his heir apparent, completing the regional pattern of authoritarian dynasty.

In July of 2005, President Saleh announced he would not seek another term as president. He claimed he would not be "an umbrella for the corrupt." But in June 2006, Saleh relented at a massive rally staged by the G.P.C. leadership and accepted the party's nomination.

On August 24, at the onset of Yemen's month-long presidential campaign season, a capacity crowd of filled a football stadium in Yemen's capital city, Sanaa. Tens of thousands had turned out in support of independent presidential candidate Faisel Bin Shamlan. A technocrat and a moderate, Bin Shamlan's political career included stints as Oil Minister and Member of Parliament but is highlighted by the times he renounced public office in protest of corrupt governmental practices.

Bin Shamlan has been endorsed by Yemen's opposition coalition, the Joint Meeting Parties (J.M.P.), which includes the Islamic reform party Islah, the Socialist party which formerly ruled South Yemen, the Nasserite Party and two smaller primarily Shiite parties. Bin Shamlan, embodying the concept of change and reform, has substantial support in both rural regions and urban centers.

The Ba'ath party, formerly a member of the JMP, dropped out of the opposition alliance in order to support President Saleh. Islah's hard-line faction, headed by UN designated terrorist financier, Sheik Abdul-Majid al-Zindani, is also endorsing Saleh.

Despite their ideological differences, the Joint Meeting Parties advanced a unified reform platform that advocates the political transition to a Parliamentary system as a remedy to the excess concentration of executive power and as a prerequisite to meaningful economic reform and development. The opposition parties are advocating, in essence, the embodiment of the unrealized democratic principles envisioned in Yemen's constitution.

On the other side of the aisle, Saleh's support goes beyond the ruling G.P.C., Baathists, Salafis and a variety of citizens who see Saleh as a heroic and patriarchal figure. Yemen's business community donated over YR one billion (about USD 5 million) to Saleh's re-election campaign. With the donation possibly violating Yemen's election law, Saleh subsequently transferred these funds to the Committee to Support the Resistance in Lebanon and Palestine. The committee is headed by President Saleh's nephew, Yahya Mohammed Abdullah Saleh.

Yahya Saleh commands Yemen's Central Security Forces and also heads a petroleum company, a cable company and other business ventures. This entwining of nepotism, force and economic opportunity is not unusual in Yemen. Saleh's relatives command much of the military and security forces while simultaneously directing many of the nations leading economic enterprises.

This cross-cutting concentration of political, bureaucratic, military, and economic power in the hands of Saleh's relatives, tribesmen, party members, and loyalists has produced a shadow government heavily invested in the status quo.

Conventional wisdom holds that this political tribe of enormous resources will stymie the election through violence, intimidation, bribery or a multitude of under-handed ploys designed to dupe the international election observers. Barley a week into the election season, a host of unfair practices have been uncovered on nearly every level of the electoral administration and an opposition election official has been murdered in the commission's office.

However Yemen's presidential competition has spurned a broad popular debate about Yemen's tumultuous past, the nature of its present reality and how to best secure the country's future. Although President Saleh has refused to debate his opponent Faisel bin Shamlan, the debate rages on all around them. The well of popular discontent has been tapped.

The topics of Yemen's national conversation include many important issues: political and religious pluralism, censorship, the duties of the state and the obligations of citizens, discrimination and land confiscation, the importance of judicial impartiality, civil rights and economic opportunity.

By challenging the culture of fear, Yemenis are pioneering new ground in the quest toward an authentic, self-induced democracy in the Middle East. As international observers document this courageous journey, "better than last time" should not be the guideline as to whether the election was "free and fair."

Jane Novak ( is an American journalist, political analyst and a contributing editor at She is also proprietor of this website focused on Yemen.


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